Slipping through

In the light of revelations over lapses in the
checking of sup ply teachers, Anabel Unity Sale asks whether the
social care sector is up to the task of checking agency staff and
finds a system still ultimately reliant on trust.

When the Amy Gehring case hit the headlines
last month many people working in the social care sector must have
felt a sense of relief that it was a supply teacher, and not a
social worker, who had been accused of wrongdoing.

Guildford Crown Court cleared Gehring of
indecently assaulting three pupils aged 14 and 15 at the second
school the TimePlan recruitment agency placed her in. The Sunday
after its ruling Gehring told a newspaper about her sexual
relationship with a 16-year-old pupil from the first school the
agency had sent her to.

It was while the Canadian teacher was at this
school that she was subject to a joint Surrey police and social
services investigation. Although Surrey police wrote to the
Department for Education and Skills about Gehring, TimePlan did
not, despite its legal duty to do so. The agency was under no
statutory obligation to stop using Gehring and instead placed her
in another school.

While the Gehring case is shocking, it could
not happen in social care – or could it? Unfortunately it could,
says Association of Directors of Social Services president Mike
Leadbetter. “Social care employers are sometimes so desperate to
fill vacancies that they go to a recruitment agency outside of
their preferred supplier list.”

Hilary Simon, Windsor and Maidenhead Council
director of social services and the vice-chairperson of ADSS human
resources committee, agrees. She says the pressure some councils
face in recruiting staff at short notice can lead to problems. “I
have known managers ringing around in tears trying to get staff,”
she says. “When people are desperate they sometimes take on any

The procedures for vetting staff are not
foolproof, according to Anthony Douglas, executive director of
community services at the London Borough of Havering.

“There are still insufficiently robust systems
that people can slip through,” he says. “The system cannot cope
with high levels of dishonesty and deviation. It is based on trust
– with some checks – and we assume the best, not the worst.”

Jeff Downey, managing director of recruitment
agency Social Work Solutions, says it is simply not possible for
employers to stand over every recruitment consultant and check
their every action.

But Owen Davies, Unison’s national officer for
social services, doubts whether the same situation would occur in
social care. “Social work agencies are much more aware of child
protection issues,” he says. “It seems inconceivable that they
would send back into a placement someone that they had doubts

The Gehring case raised a number of issues
about how recruitment agencies are policed. The Employment Agencies
Act 1973 sets out minimum standards of conduct for recruitment
agencies and businesses in the UK. It stipulates that an agency
should check that workers have the qualifications required by law,
and obtain enough information to show the worker is suitable for
the job.

Under the act, persons running an employment
agency can be banned from doing so for up to 10 years for
misconduct, and agencies which break the law can also be fined up
to £5,000. But although all employment firms must comply with
the act’s provisions and regulations, they are not regulated in any
other way.

A Department of Trade and Industry
spokesperson says it does not have a detailed breakdown of the
exact professions agencies recruit for because they provide staff
for lots of occupations. Similarly, the department cannot pinpoint
the exact number of social care staff working through these

The DTI estimates there are around 20,000
individual recruitment agencies and businesses in the UK. About
6,000 are members of the industry’s voluntary trade body, the
Recruitment and Employment Confederation. The REC’s nurses and
carers division has 170 company members, only eight of which
specialise in social work recruitment.

At April 2000 there were 52 social services
departments in England using long-term agency workers, according to
the Recruitment and Retention Survey (England) 2000 by the Local
Government Association’s workforce planning task group.1
Of these, 21 social services departments were employing field
social workers, five were using residential managers/supervisors in
children’s services, and nine were using residential care staff in
older people’s services.

Davies says social services’ use of agency
workers lowers the quality of services: “We know of some inner city
authorities where 60 per cent of staff are agency workers. This
can’t be good for the quality of care and it can’t be good for
service users.”

One reason for this, he adds, is employers’
unwillingness to invest in training for agency staff who are there
for the short term.

Social care recruitment agencies and employers
are required by the Protection of Children Act 1999 to check the
names of staff they intend to work with children against the
Protection of Children Act List.

The PoCA list is created by the Department of
Health. Along with the DfES’s List 99, it contains the names of
persons considered unsuitable to work with children. This month
both lists came under the remit of the Criminal Records Bureau, the
government’s new one-stop-shop for criminal records checks.

Downey says Social Work Solutions thoroughly
vets all candidates. His agency makes checks through application
forms, qualifications, three references, health screening, the PoCA
list, police checks, proof of identity and immigration status. The
agency has mechanisms in place to alert it when police checks
expire. When a candidate takes on another placement the agency also
takes out new references. “Should the above reveal anomalies, such
as gaps in employment, these will be investigated further until we
are completely satisfied.” A case like Gehring’s, he says, provides
agencies with a chance to impress the possible consequences of
their actions upon their staff.

Are social care employers aware of how the
recruitment sector operates? Simon says she is and that her
authority could not manage without using agency staff. Of her
department’s annual £9m staffing budget, she estimates it
spends an average of £1.3m on agency workers.

She admits that while some agencies’ checking
procedures can be unsatisfactory, they are no worse than the
in-house checks some local authorities do.

Simon recommends that councils develop
partnerships with local recruitment agencies – as her council has
done – in order to reduce any risks. She says: “That way you are
more likely to feel confident about the way they supply staff.”

Havering, like many other local authorities in
London and the South East, relies on agency staff. According to
Douglas, the social services department spends between £3m and
£4m a year – 20 per cent of its staffing costs – on agency
workers. It is now planning to launch a mentoring service for staff
the council has employed, either permanently or temporarily, via an

If councils are reliant on social care
recruitment agencies how can the way recruiters work on their
behalf be improved? Simon suggests the General Social Care Council
and the National Care Standards Commission work with the social
care and recruitment sectors to address the issue of agency staff
checks. Leadbetter agrees such joint working could pre-empt a
Gehring situation happening in social care.

Making sure local authority employers only use
agencies they feel confident about would also help, says Douglas.
“It is up to employers to take responsibility and make sure we only
contract with agencies that follow good practice procedures.”

The GSCC’s codes of practice for employers and
conduct for staff will reduce problems in social care because it
applies to all staff and all employers, says chief executive Lynne

She adds that it is also likely it will become
a requirement for all employers to check against the GSCC’s
register of social care staff. She says: “One of the main functions
of the register will be to prevent social care workers who abuse
from working again and repeating the offence.”

1 The Recruitment and
Retention Survey (England) 2000 by the Local Government
Association’s workforce planning task group

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